Sinking down to the summit

By Marci Wills, May 2, 2010

Scientists like to categorize life on Earth into “biomes”. This is just a fancy name for regions characterized by similar biological and physical characteristics. For example, rain forests, temperate forests, savannas and deserts are some of the most well known and explored biomes. Little is known however, about many biomes of the oceans. Just last week, scientists from NOAA and Texas A&M- Corpus Christi revealed data suggesting that oceanic seamounts comprise one of the most widespread and diverse biomes on Earth.

Seamounts are underwater mountains which rise from the ocean floor but do not break the water’s surface. Most often they are extinct volcanoes, as in the emperor seamounts which are an extension of the Hawaiian Islands. Previous perception has been that seamounts were isolated and remote, but this idea is gradually changing. In their paper published last week in Oceanography, Peter Etnoyer, John Wood and Thomas Shirley claim that seamounts cover a substantial portion of the Earth, an area collectively larger than Australia.

Global distribution of 11,880 seamounts rising over 1000m above the seafloor

Their study used “satellite altimetry”, where specially-equipped satellites use radar beams to measure the elevation of the earth and sea level to within a few cm of accuracy. The use of satellite altimetry on the deep ocean floor is less precise, so the researchers looked for the most prominent seamounts rising at least 1000 meters. They counted about 11,880 of these worldwide, covering a cumulative area of 9,938,000 square kilometers, and that is their conservative estimate. That would make seamounts one of the most prevalent biomes in the world, ranking about even with the global extent of tropical humid forests, temperate broadleaf forests and wetlands.

Although organisms living on many seamounts never see sunlight, are surrounded by cold temperatures and high salinity water, and must rely on material falling from the surface waters for food, these elevated regions are undersea islands of biodiversity, sustaining much more life than surrounding seafloor. Only 200 seamounts have been thoroughly explored, but new species have been observed on nearly every submarine dive. In the Gulf of Alaska, two dozen new species of corals and sponges have been collected from seamounts since 2002.

This study demonstrates that rather than isolated features, seamounts often occur in dense clusters which vary significantly in size and number. The densest aggregation of seamounts is in the center of the Pacific Ocean where they are concentrated in a region exceeding the area of China. According to Project leader Peter Etnoyer, “Unlike beaches or coral reefs, most people will never see a seamount, but this study shows that they are clearly one of the predominant ecosystems on the planet”.


Entnoyer, P.J., Wood, J., and Shirley, T.C., 2010, How large is the seamount biome?: Oceanography, v. 23, p. 206-209.

Exercist Therapy: A Natural Anti-Depressant

By Abby Larson

Have you ever felt sad or stressed, laced up your running shoes and went on a run to find yourself feeling happier once you got back?  Anti-depressants might not be the best treatment for depression and anxiety, conditions that many Americans take drugs for.  Psychology Professors Smits and Otto from Southern Methodist and Boston Universities have shown that Exercise Therapy is a successful treatment of many mental health problems.
Presenting their findings at the Anxiety Disorder Association of America’s annual conference in March to researchers and mental health care providers, Smits and Otto have found that people who exercise show fewer signs of depression and stress.  Much like an anti-depressant, exercise triggers the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that help relieve stress and depression and allow patients to perform daily tasks more efficiently.  Additionally, as one exercises more, resting heart rate lowers, causing patients to feel less anxiety.
Smits believes that patients should exercise at least 150 minutes a week at a moderate-intensity or 75 minutes at high-intensity.  Exercise therapy is about the immediate benefits of exercise on mood, not just the long-term health benefits.
As the list of learned health benefits of exercise grows, psychiatrists should be encouraged to prescribe schedules and goals to exercise instead of anti-depressants for a less costly and more beneficial therapy for mood disorders.  So, next time you’re stressed about work or academics or have a loss of confidence, get outside and exercise.  It’s what the doctor ordered.

For more information, see links at SMU research

Space is big, time is bunk

By Victor Allegretti

Douglas Adams once wrote, “There is a theory which states that if ever for any reason anyone discovers what exactly the Universe is for and why it is here it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another that states that this has already happened.”

A common problem with astrophysics is gravity’s insistence on non-conformity with the three other basic forces of nature: the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism. Dark energy also mischievously causes physicists to scratch their heads; it expands our universe at an accelerating rate, even though gravity should be contracting it or at least slowing the expansion.

While there isn’t any formal research to Douglas Adams’ statement, there is research from Nikodem Poplawski of Indiana University that postulates our universe exists inside of a black hole somewhere in space. He believes that the classic dark energy and gravity enigmas are the result of physicists commonly stopping their research for the origins of our universe at the Big Bang. According to Poplawski’s research, the collapse of a massive star in another universe could have created a wormhole, a space-time “bridge” (hence the name Einstein-Rosen bridges) to another point in space-time. Poplawski theorizes that within this wormhole, conditions could have existed similar to those associated with the Big Bang, thus possibly forming our universe.

The current conundrums of dark energy and non-conforming gravity can be addressed by this theory. If a universe existed prior to our own, it is possible that nuclear forces and electromagnetism played nice with gravity, and if our universe is expanding towards the end of the wormhole, the inexplicable expansion of our universe can be explained sans dark energy. Don’t be too excited to see whatever strange and bizarre cosmos exists beyond our own, however. The physics of wormholes are similar to the physics of black holes. If you could ever pass through the event horizon of the wormhole to visit the universe on the other side, you could never return. “You will be stuck,” Poplawksi says.

Hopefully Douglas Adams wasn’t right.


Walking source of Biodiesel

By Amy Woolf

Biodiesel is no longer just made from plant resources. Scientists in Nevada have found a new way to make biodiesel out of chicken feather meal. This advancement could take some of the resource competition out of the biodiesel industry. Currently, most biodiesel is made from soy and vegetable oil, which is also a human food source. Chicken feather meal is not used as a human food source; it is used as a fertilizer and as a component of animal feed because of the high protein content.

With current amounts of chicken feather meal that is being created in the US, 153 million gallons of biodiesel could be synthesized annually. 593 million gallons could be created worldwide out of chicken feather meal. Also, in the process for synthesizing biodiesel out of feather meal only uses the fat content that can be extracted from the meal, and that turns the remainder of the chicken feather meal that is unused into a higher grade animal feed and a better fertilizer.

Chicken feather meal is made from processed chicken feathers, blood, and innards. All of these ingredients are a waste byproduct of the poultry industry. They are processed under pressure at high temperatures.

Press Release

Journal Article

Icelandic volcanoes spew Hydrofluoric acid… just one more reason why living on Earth is sometimes difficult.

By Marci Wills, April 18th, 2010

It seems that Earth is especially determined to show off its tricks this year. The ongoing eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (how do you pronounce that?) volcano in Iceland this week serves as yet another powerful reminder that we must organize our lives around the unpredictable workings of our planet. The continued cessation of air travel across Europe due to Eyjafjallajokull’s ash cloud is more than a slight inconvenience, but the research of Hildur Gestsdottir of the Institute of Archaeology in Rejkjavik suggests that the eruption may pose an even more severe threat. She believes that hydrofluoric acid emmitted from the Icelandic volcanoes has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Europeans in previous severe eruptions.

Aerial view of the ash cloud over Eyjafjallajokull last Thursday

Iceland’s most devastating eruption of historic time was that of the offshore volcanic peak, Laki, in 1783. Laki spewed ash into the air over 8 full months and 10,000 Icelanders (roughly 1 in 5) died. Laki’s ash cloud altered European weather patterns, resulting in consecutively one of Europe’s hottest summers followed by its  most severe winter on record in 1873, both of which were associated with higher than normal death rates in Europe that year. Still, Hildur Gestsdottir believed that there were other reasons behind why the death toll in Iceland was so high. Survivors of the Laki eruption noted that their sheep and other livestock developed knobby protrusions from their bones, a telltale sign of fluorosis, or fluoride poisoning, just before dying. When Hildur excavated late 18th century graves in 2004, she found that many of those buried just after the eruption showed similarly abnormal bone growths. Hildur believes that these people were drinking water with concentrations of 30 to 40 ppm of hydrofluoric acid, enough to make you feel sick, but the poisoned ash was so pervasive that they simply had no other option.

The current Eyjafjallajokull eruption is not expected to reach a Laki-like scale. The ash cloud is located at ~30,000 ft, unfortunately the same altitude at which planes fly, but luckily below the stratosphere where volcanic gases can have a global effect because of a lack of rain there. Atmospheric scientist Brian Toon of the University of Colorado Boulder expects that the ash cloud from Eyjafjallajokull will be washed away by rain as it drifts further to the east. Still, hydrofluoric acid may become a worry if the eruption continues much longer. Fluoride-rich volcanic ash clings to vegetation and may affect crops and livestock even at low concentrations. If continuously ingested at high concentrations, people and animals can begin to die within several months. The effects of fluoride-rich volcanic ash are not fully understood as such Fluoride-rich lava is characteristic only of the volcanoes in Iceland and some in Melanesia.

Iceland has about 130 volcanoes, 18 of which have erupted since the settlement of the island in 900 C.E. Events of the scale of the Laki disaster are expected to occur there every 500 to 1000 years. As part of learning to survive on our planet, it is important to consider the challenges of keeping food and drinking water fluoride-free (and free of other various volcanic poisons) in the midst of air traffic, and possibly communication, shutdown due to volcanic eruptions.


Stone, R., 2004, Iceland’s Doomsday Scenario: Science, News Focus, v. 306, p. 1278-1281.

Brain shock therapy that actually works!

Justin Williams ’13

Just today, April 18th, 2010, researchers from various universities (University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Tufts University, and The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign) published that they have developed a new and improved way to implant electrodes into the brain in order to monitor and react to different patterns of brain activity.

As of now, the most advanced methods we have for measuring brain activity are either thin needle-like electrodes that can be inserted deep within the brain or micro-electrode arrays (made up on dozens of electrodes attached to a silicon base or grid). Although both of these methods are useful, they each have drawbacks. The needle-like electrodes are very vulnerable and can be moved or broken when the brain changes position and the silicon base of the micro-electrode arrays do not allow for much flexibility when attaching to the surface of the brain.

An example of an electrode array set up on a model of the brains surface.

However, now researcher Dr. Brian Litt M.D. from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and colleagues have developed a new and improved method that uses a silk base instead of silicon. Dr. Litt, when explaining their reasoning behind their micro-electrode array design, said that “the implants contain metal electrodes that are 500 microns thick, or about five times the thickness of a human hair. The absence of sharp electrodes and rigid surfaces should improve safety, with less damage to brain tissue. Also, the implants’ ability to mold to the brain’s surface could provide better stability; the brain sometimes shifts in the skull and the implant could move with it. Finally, by spreading across the brain, the implants have the potential to capture the activity of large networks of brain cells.” In addition to these advantages, the silk base can also be dissolved at a controlled time point which would provide for even better stability for the electrodes.

The potential impact of this new method for measuring and altering brain activity is enormous.This design has promising implications for treatment of epilepsy, spinal cord injuries, and other neurological disorders. For example, the arrays could be read the start of epileptic activity and deliver a shock that would calm the brain down and prevent the seizure. Although these results are a step in the right direction, researchers are still experimenting with varying numbers and arrangements of arrays in order to maximize the clarity of the measurements the electrodes read.